Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cultural diplomacy, ordinary debate case study

Here is another important concept in cultural diplomacy and-in fact-an essential part of any genuine dialogue or debate, whether there is a cultural difference or simply a political or lifestyle difference.

I thought of presenting this topic today as a result of listening to a caller to a morning talk show. The caller was able to get through I guess around five sentences of his opinion, but in the way of most people, was still developing his position when he was interrupted by the kind of bristling talk show host. The caller had triggered a quick change from a rather mellow tone to this bristling reaction by the talk host because the caller stated that he felt the USA is in need of a revolution. Now, the caller never got a chance to state what exactly he means by “revolution” (one of the most overworked terms of the past forty years) because the talk show host assumed he meant violent revolution. So the talk show host gave what I’m sure he felt was a really responsible “reply,” focusing on God (this is a conservative show) and the necessity to avoid violent revolution. Well…. Here’s the problem with that response.

First of all, as I said, “revolution” is one of the most overworked words of the past forty years, and it means at least a hundred different things-a hundred different types of “revolution”-depending on who you are speaking to and about what subject! You need to give a person who uses that word at least a few sentences to sketch (even in rapid fire “talk show” formats) what type of revolution he or she means. Just because they reference the American Revolution and the Civil War does not mean that they are indicated violent government overthrow. But it was those references that caused to talk show to immediately assume that the caller was alluding to a military revolution, but there was absolutely no reason to believe that was what he meant. So the most important rule in any dialogue is not to stop listening when a “code word” or concept is used and, instead, at least ask for a few sentences from the other person to clarify what they mean.

It’s hard to get into someone’s head, so this is how I recommend you obtain the most accurate information about your conversationalist’s position. Ask him or her, “How exactly would you envision this working if ideally your suggestion would take place in the best of circumstances?” Imagine the wide variety of possible replies to the “revolution” scenario. The guy might respond, “Well, I think that states that disagree with the federal government on such and such an issue should break away.” Then you’d have to ask what he means by “break away,” since that might simply mean a state constitutional amendment regarding a specific topic, hardly a call to marching armies! If you respect the person and give them time to at least sketch out in a sentence or two what they mean and how they’d like to see it happen, you actually find out information and perspective that is far beyond what your knee jerk reaction and assumptions dictate, and thus, then, hijack your attention and the fittingness of your response. I believe that at least ninety percent of conversations, debates, public diplomacy and presentations of views are hijacked by inattention and erroneous assumptions once a “code word” is spoken and thus defensive and hostile mechanisms are triggered.

The second reason this is a problem is that suppose the worst is true, that your debating combatant does have a radical view, but you take off on a tangent without allowing him or her to express the full view, they can, legitimately, discount your response. Just as you stopped listening to him or her at a code word, once they realize you are only responding to the code word and not what they are actually saying, they shut you off in return since your response is not relevant to their belief. Thus there is no point to having had the conversation at all. Both liberals and conservatives need to listen to me and heed my advice on this regard. You don’t “mitigate” or “argue” against what you feel are “radical” views if you do not get into specifics and if you jump to conclusions and shut them off, you miss a “conversion” possibility and simply harden their views (whatever they may be since you didn’t actually stop to find out the specifics).

How would this work? Suppose this guy was advocating what you think is a horrible scenario, which is that he thinks that some group should run amok in the USA advocating armed revolution, and suppose you uncover this via respectful and prolonged questioning. Hmm, so what would you do then? If anything you should think that dialogue is even more important, since a lot is at stake if this guy is feeling that armed revolution is either desirable or sadly inevitable (notice that this is another nuance that you must explore: does he or she want what he or she describes, or do they think it is inevitable? There’s a world of difference in stance and thus in reasonable reply). Here’s how I would handle such a conversation. I would ask him or her how they would deal with a number of scenarios and let them talk and think it through. For example, I would ask, “Suppose in your ideal world you called for revolution but only one state agreed? Would you consider that a success, in that all who agree with you and your views could move to that state and live in the legality (whatever issues) that you called for revolution regarding?”

See, here I’ve painted a scenario. I’ve said, “OK, let’s assume that the revolution you advocate works, but not as much as you hoped for, because only one state agrees and achieves revolution in the area that you are concerned about. What would you do next? Would that be enough for you?” When you allow the person to describe specifics of what they want (with the help of intelligent coaching by you), you accomplish a lot of good things. 1) You actually understand what he or she is saying and what their position actually is, 2) You can target your concerns and objections with accuracy, thus productively prolonging the fruitfulness of the dialogue and 3) Both of you have to openly evaluate possible merits to his or her position, and possible problems with his or her position. You may find out that he or she is onto something valid, buried underneath their invalid methods of achieving it! Likewise, while you may not achieve results on the spot, the person will leave with some serious thinking to do, perhaps something like, “Hmm, I never thought of that. Suppose my revolution was successful, but only for one state. What would that mean? Would I actually move my family to that state? Maybe that’s not quite the solution I thought it was.”

Whenever people flip out and overreact over code words, it’s worse than if they never had the conversation at all. More damage is done by having repeated hardened calloused encounters between the usual “misunderstanding combatants.” Every time someone says, for example, “I believe the Palestinians should have a homeland” and the other person replies, “I do not,” both have damaged the entire dialogue and the progress of their own causes. When you distill an entire thorny social, moral, cultural, diplomatic and governmental woe to “Homeland? Yes or no,” you pour more verbal and mental concrete on fallacious “opposing” positions. I mean, think about it, one person may be envisioning one type of homeland structure while the other one is imagining something completely different. You never get the chance to find out, work with the legitimate positions, discover common ground, and unfold many nuances of options rather than a theoretical “pro” or “con.”

So long as the person you are dialoguing with has humane good will, you can and should listen to the fullness of his or her position, even if it is diametrically opposed to your own views. Thus, while I believe that those of good will on either side of the abortion position should dialogue, I would not have recommended that either of them try to dialogue with Pol Pot. Ninety nine plus percent of humanity is not despot maniacs, and the vast majority of them are just trying to get by in life as best as possible. If a person is not a despot maniac, than you should take care to actually question them and listen to them about their full beliefs; you might learn something and actually change your own mind.

To summarize: 1) Discipline your thinking and analysis to ignore code words and not derail your assessment of a person’s position just because he or she uses a code word, 2) Ask the person to describe specific implementations of the fulfillment of their views, 3) If they are inarticulate, be kind and help them to articulate what they are saying, since erudition and glibness are not indicators of value of idea, and lack of those qualities of presentation do not diminish the potential value of an idea, 4) Always recall that unless the person is a despot maniac, he or she is just trying to get through life as best as they can and thus they share something with you.

I hope that you have found this helpful.